As I sat watching the funeral of First Lady Barbara Bush, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat bad that her funeral had somewhat been overshadowed by the controversy generated by one of her vocal critics. California State University Fresno professor Randa Jarrar tweeted, among other things, in light of Bush’s passing, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”
As you very well might know, or at least can imagine, this did not go over very well. In fact, even though she is a professor with tenure, it appears that Fresno president Joseph Castro may be considering disciplinary action after he said, “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish. We are all held accountable for our actions.”
This, of course, raises an interesting question for someone like me who has written multiple times on the importance of free speech. Jarrar clearly has no taste, and she clearly is a heartless individual who was just looking for an opportunity to take a cheap shot and get some shock publicity in the style of Kathy Griffin. That pretty much goes without saying, and, given the outrage that we have seen from across the political spectrum, I think that a lot of people would agree with this assessment of her character.
That being said, I cannot and should not deny that she has free speech. She can say awful things if she wants to. It would not be right if she threatened to restrict my speech, so I should not threaten to advocate for policies that would restrict hers as a private individual (I am in no position to put such policies into place anyway, but just to be clear, I do not think that, as a private individual, her speech should be restricted no matter how evil it is).
Now, with both of these realities established, we have to return to the question of the discipline that has been threatened by Fresno. Is it appropriate to discipline someone at work for their opinions that they express in their personal time?
This gets into some sensitive areas without a doubt because I think that we often make laundry list of things that we wish people wouldn’t say and would quite frankly feel uncomfortable if our coworkers said. Just to be entirely clear, this has never happened, but if I was working with someone who said that he or she wished that all Christians were wiped off the face of the earth, I would be uncomfortable. If I was in the room with Peter Singer as he advocated for the euthanasia of children born with disabilities, I would be uncomfortable.
However, as we come to this issue of free speech in the context of Randa Jarrar, we have to do our best to separate emotion from this discussion and separate our own personal discomfort from the principle of the matter. As distasteful as I may find Jarrar’s comments, the principle of free speech is something that we have to handle very carefully and not just emotionally respond. I’m going to try to do that for you this week.